Feargus O’Connor: Lion of Freedom                  [1955]

        – A centenary tribute

[This pamphlet, written by C. Desmond Greaves, was published by the Connolly Association in 1955 to mark the centenary of the death of the Chartist leader.  Its front cover carried a drawing of O’Connor with the characterisation: “Irish patriot, and pioneer of Trade Unionism, the Co-operative movement and a democratic press”.]

Lion of Freedom

The lion of freedom is come from his den;

We’ll rally around him, again and again:

 We’ll crown him with laurel, our champion to be:

 O’Connor the patriot: for sweet liberty!

The pride of the people – He’s noble and brave –

 A terror to tyrants – a friend to the slave:

 The bright star of Freedom – the noblest of men:

We’ll rally around him, again and again.

Who strove for the patriot – was up night and day –

To save them from falling to tyrants a prey?

‘Twas fearless O’Connor was diligent then: 

We’ll rally around him, again and again.

Though proud daring tyrants his body confined,

 They never could conquer his generous mind:

 We’ll hail our caged lion, now freed from his den:

 We’ll rally around him, again and again.

  • Chartist Hymn

On September 10th, 1855, the streets of London resounded to the sound of 50,000 working men marching in the funeral procession of the best-loved leader of the Chartist movement, Feargus O’Connor, who symbolised the unity of the English and Irish working-class interest. They assembled in Russell Square and proceeded to Notting Hill, where the funeral cortege was waiting. Headed by a hearse drawn by four horses, the procession made its way solemnly to Kensal Green Cemetery where O’Connor was to be buried, crowds lining the route all along the way. A large black flag, carried by several men and inscribed with the words “He lived and died for us”, floated at the head of this vast procession.

The reasons for Feargus O’Connor’s immense popularity have been well explained by Ernest Jones when he said:

“Here was a man who broke away from rank, wealth and station; who threw up a lucrative and successful practise; who dissipated a large fortune, not in private self-denial but in political self-sacrifice; who made himself an eternal exile from his own country, where he owned broad acres and represented one of the largest counties; who was hated by his family because he loved the human race; whose every act was devotion to the people; and who ends almost destitute after a career of unexampled labour. There is his life. Now look at his work. At a time of utter prostration, of disunion, doubt and misery, he gathered the millions of this country together as men have never been gathered … The people in the 19th century in constitutional England are the weakest of all. He taught them to become the strongest.”


Feargus O’Connor, born at Dangan Castle, Co. Meath, on July 18th, 1794, was educated at Portarlington Grammar School, Dublin University and the King’s Inn, Dublin. His father, Roger, and his uncle, Arthur O’Connor, were both leaders of the United Irishmen, a revolutionary democratic movement having as its aim the establishment of an independent Irish Republic. Arthur had worked to build an alliance with the most advanced section of British Democracy, the London Corresponding Society. Although the British Government was able to defeat the United Irishmen by methods of provocation, rape, burning, torture and pillage, their ideas inspired Irishmen for generations to come, not least among them Feargus O’Connor, who strove in his time to build an alliance of British and Irish Democracy. When he founded his famous newspaper, he gave it the same name as the organ of the United Irishmen and called it the Northern Star.

The campaign of terror against the United Irishmen led to the first great wave of Irish emigration to Britain. Four years later, in 1801, the British Government, by spending over £1,000,000 in bribes to its Members, succeeded in getting the nominally independent Irish Parliament to vote for a union of the two Kingdoms. As a result all vestige of Irish independence was ruthlessly suppressed and Irish industry was deliberately destroyed so that it might not compete with British. Ireland’s weavers and spinners, and all who depended upon her industries for their employment, were forced to emigrate by starvation and unemployment.

In the Irish countryside the people were ground down by absentee landlords, whose sole interest was to squeeze the maximum rent from their impoverished tenants. The people were forced to pay rack-rents approaching the full annual value of the produce of their holdings to the landlords, and to pay tithes to support Protestant clergymen, even in parishes where not a single tenant belonged to the Established Church. The fall in agricultural prices at the end of the Napoleonic War in 1815 meant that many farmers could not pay their rents. Pitilessly the landlords drove them from their holdings. Disease and famine extended. Burning with hatred of the landlords and of a foreign church, the peasants fought back. Their only weapon being their numbers, they organised themselves in secret Ribbon lodges. It was from the Ribbonmen that O’Connor learnt of the importance of unity and organisation for the working people. When in the 1830s there was a general refusal to pay tithes, O’Connor addressed many meetings of peasantry in the South of Ireland arguing that tithes should be abolished or commuted.

During the first half of the nineteenth century, Daniel O’Connell took the lead in two great campaigns. One was for Catholic Emancipation, secured in 1829. In the 1830s the Irish people rallied behind him again in the demand for the repeal of the Union with Britain.

In Britain, the Industrial Revolution and the growth of the factory system had disrupted the old way of life. The workers were crowded into rapidly expanding towns, where they lived in conditions beyond description. Agricultural labourers were being driven off the land to become workers in mines and factories as a result of enclosures, the fall in agricultural prices and the drop in scale of relief. Hours were long, wages low, housing crowded and insanitary, and there was universal insecurity. Legal limit to the hours of labour was unknown. Women and children toiled in the mines like animals. There was little trade union organisation amongst the working people. Although the anti-trade union laws had been repealed in 1826, so far only the highly-skilled crafts, like the printers, had taken the opportunity to form trade unions.

The situation was complicated by the additional factor of Irish immigration to Britain. In 1841 it was estimated that 144,000 Irish had emigrated to Britain during the previous ten years. In the following ten years, 550,000 entered the country. English manufacturers encouraged the immigration in the hope that it would be a means of reducing the wages of English workers. There were some cases where the Irish, uninformed of local conditions, worked for lower wages than the English. But in general, contemporary authorities agree, Irish immigration did not lead to a fall in wages. As one factory owner ruefully confessed, the Irish were “the most difficult to reason with and convince on the subject of wages and regulations in the factories”.

 The reason was that the Irish brought with them their hatred of exploitation, and above all their republican and democratic traditions and a skill in the organisation of combinations against their exploiters. Very soon they came to play the leading role in the organisation of trade unions in Britain. A Donegal man, John Doherty, organised the Cotton Spinners’ Union in 1829, which was based on the same organisational principles as the United Irishmen. In 1830 he founded the National Association for the Protection of Labour, which aimed at the uniting of all who laboured into one general union. Four years later a Manchester building contractor said that the Irish were “more disposed to combination than any other men; they are the talkers and ringleaders on all occasions. The chairman and secretary of the present general trades’ union is an Irishman.”

In 1834 the Poor Law Amendment Act was passed. Its purpose was to end all outdoor relief to the unemployed and to confine assistance to those wretches who left their own homes and lived in workhouses, where conditions were so bad that they became known as “Bastilles” after the notorious prison, the storming of which had been the first act in the French Revolution. The Act was based on the argument that all who were unemployed did not want work, and they must therefore be forced by threat of starvation to accept wages however low and to work for no matter how many hours. The first beginnings of the Chartist movement grew from the agitation against the new Poor Law. O’Connor played a leading role in this movement, addressing many meetings in the North of England.


Soon the movement against the new Poor Law grew into an organised demand for the transfer of political power to the working people. This was brought about by the People’s Charter. The six points of the Charter were: Universal Suffrage.; Vote by Ballot; Annual Parliaments; Equal Electoral Districts; No Property Qualifications for Members of Parliament, and Payment of Members of Parliament. Once these points were accepted, the working people would be able to take over the government of the country. Chartism, which drew its support from the appalling conditions of the people and from their opposition to the new Poor Law, was the first organised Party of Labour in the history of the world. In it the Irish were to play an important role under the leadership of Feargus O’Connor. 

In 1832 Feargus O’Connor has been elected at the head of the poll as MP for County Cork. He had stood as a Repealer. During the next few years he spoke regularly in the House of Commons on the need for Repeal of the Union and the abolition of tithes. His zeal was so great as to embarrass Daniel O’Connell, who was anxious to secure an alliance with the Whig Party. He also differed from O’Connell on the question of the Ten-Hour Bill, which would have placed a legal limit on the hours of labour. Old Dan was convinced that such a Bill if it became law could only lead to idleness and immorality. In gratitude for his stand against the Bill, a group of English factory owners raised a substantial subscription in his honour.

In 1835 Feargus O’Connor was re-elected for Co. Cork, but was unseated on the ground that he lacked the necessary property qualification, although his property differed in no way from what it had been in 1832. From 1835 O’Connor made his home in England. He threw all his energies into the campaign for the Charter, which took the form of a petition to Parliament in 1839. This first petition obtained 1,200,000 signatures, but Parliament refused to make any concession.

The “Northern Star”

O’Connor’s first great contribution to the Chartist movement was the foundation of the Northern Star. Its first issue appeared on November 18th, 1837. Published weekly in Leeds, it rapidly became the most popular and influential of the Chartist newspapers. It continued until 1852. Many of the best leaders of the Chartist movement were closely associated with it: Bronterre O’Brien, its first editor, whom O’Connor dubbed “the schoolmaster of Chartism” because of his lucid explanations of the aims of the movement; Ernest Jones, a close friend of O’Connor; Julian Harney, founder of the London Democratic Association, which was largely recruited from the Irish weavers at Spitalfields; Thomas Clarke, and Thomas Cooper, the Chartist poet.

O’Connor, while giving scope in the Northern Star for the expression of the various schools of Chartist thought, welded it, by means of a steady stream of articles from his own pen, into an organ which stressed two fundamental principles over and over again, namely, the need for all workers to belong to trade unions, the need for unity, and the fundamental identity of interest of British and Irish democracy.

O’Connor and Trade Unions

O’Connor came to attach increasing importance to the organisation of all unskilled workers in trade unions, for up to that time only the skilled crafts were organised. When some of the leaders of the craft unions opposed the organisation of the unskilled, he contemptuously referred to them as the “pompous trades and proud mechanics”. He attacked their narrow outlook and argued that the interests of all workers, whether skilled or, unskilled, were one. The Northern Star constantly argued in this way:

“By union, and by union alone can the ‘poor oppressed’ contend against the injustice of the ‘rich oppressor’. And let not the printers, if well paid, suppose that any injustice committed against the tailors, if badly paid, will not sooner or later come home to their own doors! Let not the spinners, if better paid than the handloom weavers, lose sight of the fact that a ‘surplus’ of handloom weavers will constitute a reservoir for the masters to fall back upon as a means of reducing the wages of the spinners. Let not the bricklayers imagine that a reduction of the wages of their labourers will not be followed by a reduction of their own wages. A blow successfully struck at one order of labour will as successfully wound all others.”

 In 1844 O’Connor’s increasing recognition of the importance of the trade unions was reflected in a change of title. The paper was renamed the Northern Star and National Trades Journal. It gave publicity to every effort to organise the unskilled. Particular prominence was given to the progress of trade unionism among the colliers. The Northern Star gave support to the agitation for the Ten-Hour Bill by publicising meetings called to support it and by means of editorials and articles which stressed its great importance. As a result of the campaign, the Bill passed into law in 1847.

Alliance of British and Irish Democracy

The fundamental theme of O’Connor’s life and work was the need for such an alliance. The Irish were held back from national independence by English landlords and capitalists, the very same landlords and capitalists who exploited the British working people. That O’Connor felt the democracy of the two countries to be one can be seen from the fact that regularly up to one-third of the contents of the Star was each week devoted to Irish problems, sometimes more. He declared on numerous occasions that “whenever the peoples of both countries were united, the oppressors of both countries would fall.” The Star, by its attention to conditions in Ireland, sought to build up feelings of sympathy and friendship between the working classes in Britain and Ireland.

Typical of O’Connor’s argument was his “Address” in the Star in 1844 “To all those who live upon the fruits of their own hand.” He urged that since the people of Britain could expect nothing from the political parties of the landlords and capitalist, they must themselves combine and unite into a movement in alliance with the Irish. Every attempt would  be made to defeat such an alliance, including the use of sectarian prejudice.

“To be forewarned is to be forearmed”, he wrote, “and I now forewarn you that a most desperate attempt will once more be made to create dissension, division and disunion between the English and Irish working classes, with the view of restoring the Whigs to power. Nay more; an attempt will be made to give a religious colour to the new agitation; and you, the English working classes, who love your Irish Catholic countrymen equally as well as your Protestant neighbours, and you who contend for the principle of free religion will, ere long, be denounced as the enemies of Catholic Ireland. It matters not to those who will thus try to enlist new prejudices for the attainment of new patronage that they know the charge to be false. ‘The end will justify the means’; and I now tell you that all means, and every means, will be resorted to, to effect the desired object . . .”

He pointed out that at O’Connell’s trial for sedition earlier in the year, O’Connell pleaded that he alone stood in the way of an alliance which, in the Liberator’s own words, “would be formidable enough to overturn any administration that could be formed.” O’Connor commented: “From Mr O’Connell’s defence … you will have learned that the ‘unhappy genius of Chartism’ is the one vision which haunts him. The object of his defence is to recommend himself to the middle-class plunderers; to the weak-minded and superstitious, by convincing them that he, and only he, can grapple with the growing monster . . .”

O’Connor gave this advice to the English: “Tell them,” he said – ­ meaning their Irish fellow- workers – “ that as Englishmen you are  for guaranteeing to Ireland a Parliament of her own, chosen by her own Catholic people … Tell them that you consider a Catholic to be full as good as a Protestant, and that you are against the payment of all compulsory support to any church … Tell them that justice to Ireland must be accomplished at one and the same moment as justice to England; and that you would consider your whole rights to be too dearly purchased at the price which demanded the slightest distinction between an English Protestant and an Irish Catholic . . . .”

“Confidence, however,” continued  O’Connor, “in my own countrymen tells me that the veil has been lifted – that Irishmen are beginning to see for themselves; and when unjust prejudices are removed they will see in the English working classes the only body that contends honestly, fairly and boldly for the principles for which they contend; while they will find Mr O’Connell associating with the very men who, as legislators, are pledged to resist Repeal to the death, and with the very class who never mention the word except in derision, until they thought they could use it as a charm to catch the minds of Irishmen, and the chief of which class has denounced Irishmen as lousy, dirty, and immoral . . .”

Such was the result, he argued, of O’Connell’s alliance with the Whigs. In order to encourage the Irish to recognise the English workers as their only reliable ally, O’Connor gave this advice:

“Put these questions to Irishmen: Will the Tories vote for repeal? Will the Whigs vote for Repeal? . . . And would not nine hundred and ninety-nine out of every thousand English Chartists vote for the Repeal of the Union and the destruction of the Irish State Church tomorrow?”

The Second Petition

In 1842 O’Connor was active in the campaign for the Second Petition for the Charter. This time as a result of O’Connor’s efforts the repeal of the Union was added to the previous points of the Charter. This was a tremendous political victory for O’Connor since the proposal to include Repeal had aroused considerable opposition from the skilled artisans in London led by William Lovett and from Chartists who were afraid of frightening away the middle class. Here was the basis of alliance. This time 3,317,702 people signed the Petition. Still Parliament refused to make any concession. The Petition had one immediate positive result; the British workers recognising the Irish as their allies.

In 1843 the Chartists in Britain organised a vigorous campaign for Repeal. Meetings were held by Charter Associations all over Britain – in Leeds, Bradford, Sheffield, Derby, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Hull, Stalybridge and London. Petitions were sent from Newcastle and several other localities. O’Connor formally applied to become a member of one of the Repeal Associations in London. This was the equivalent of the Chartists applying for affiliation to the Repeal Movement.

On Daniel O’Connell’s express instructions the proffered support was refused and O’Connor’s application was rejected. Instead, O’Connell attacked the Chartist leaders, and especially O’Connor who, he declared, had “a great influence over the half-brutalised minds of the English people”. He forbade the Repealers to have anything to do with the Chartists. Repealers who disobeyed this order were expelled. O’Connell’s policy not only had the effect of refusing the alliance with the Chartists, but by excluding the more democratic element among the Irish weakened the Repeal movement itself. Soon there were critics of O’Connell’s policy of tying the Repeal movement to the Whig party. The Young Ireland movement grew up around Thomas Davis.

At first the Young Irelanders also refused to have anything to do with the Chartists because they regarded that movement as essentially English, but later changed their attitude. Ernest Jones and W.J. Linton, prominent Chartist leaders, both contributed to the Nation, the organ of the Young Irelanders. There was not full agreement amongst the Young Irelanders on the question of the alliance with Chartism. It was because of their refusal to face the realities of the situation that John Mitchel broke away from the Young Ireland movement and founded his paper, the United Irishman, in which he gave each week great prominence to the activities of the Chartists in Britain and argued for alliance. His propaganda was successful, and in 1848 the best among the young Islanders were won over for this policy. D’Arcy Magee went to Scotland and Terrence Bellew MacManus to London to negotiate a plan for joint action. Tomas Francis Meagher addressed the Chartists of Manchester and a delegate was sent in April to the Chartist National Convention. O’Gorman Mahon spoke at meetings in Dublin on the same platform as English Chartist delegates. John Mitchel was elected as a delegate for Salford to the Chartist National Assembly in May 1848.

Owing to his arrest he was unable to go, and Michael Doheny, the author of The Felon’s Track, attended in his place. Then in 1849 an Irish Chartist body was founded, the Irish Democratic Association, with branches all over Ireland and Britain. Among its supporters were T.C. Luby and Thomas Mooney, the famous “Transatlantic”1. Chartist missionaries were received by the Irish Confederates in Dublin; meetings were organised in England and Ireland at which Confederates and Chartists spoke side by side advocating alliance.

Confederate Clubs in Britain actively supported the principles of the Charter along with Repeal. To Feargus O’Connor it appeared that after years of struggle he was beginning to see the union of the English and Irish workers against the common enemy. At a meeting of Repealers and Chartists in Manchester on March 17th 1848 he declared:

“He had often been told that the time would never arrive when Englishmen and Irishmen stood together on the same platform, advocating the same principles. Thank God he had lived to see the day. He had often declared that whenever the people of both countries were united, the oppressors of both countries would fall.’

The Nottingham Election

In the General Election held in July 1847 Feargus O’Connor was returned as Member of Parliament for Nottingham, a city of great democratic traditions. During his election campaign the story is told that such was the hatred of his enemies for him that he succeeded in addressing one meeting only ever after laying out half-a-dozen of his more violent opponents with the aid of his stout black-thorn stick.

During the first session of the new Parliament, O’Connor at once directed his attention to Ireland. In November he spoke against the Coercion Bill which placed the country under martial law. John Mitchel and Thomas Meagher of the Irish Confederates praised O’Connor’s opposition to this vicious measure. A few weeks later he tried to introduce a motion on the Repeal of the Union, something which had not been done since 1835. Although the Bill was defeated, O’Connor’s prestige rose among the Irish Confederates in Ireland and England, and the Young Irelanders began to take concrete steps towards an alliance with the British Chartists. O’Connor’s activities in Parliament were of prime importance in building an alliance of the democracies of the two countries.

Kennington Common

The Chartist Convention in 1848 decided to hold an immense demonstration on April 10th for the purpose of presenting the Third Chartist Petition to Parliament, which O’Connor believed to contain five and a half million signatures. Although the meeting was proclaimed by the authorities, the Chartists were out on Kennington Common and it was estimated that more than 150,000 people took part.

Representatives of the Irish Confederate Clubs participated, showing their feelings of solidarity with the British working class. They marched under a green banner emblazoned with a picture of an Irish harp, and wherever it appeared there were shouts of “Erin Go Bragh”. 

The British Government, terrified by this powerful demonstration by the working class, assembled vast numbers of artillery, dragoons and special constables to intimidate the Chartists and prevent them crossing Westminster Bridge to the Houses of Parliament.

O’Connor decided to avoid open conflict with the armed forces and presented the petition himself with two others. The meeting broke up but the Irish Confederates, alone of all the demonstrators, defied the police regulations and marched back over the bridge in military formation.

This great demonstration was followed by many more meetings in favour of the People’s Charter and Repeal of the Union. Mitchel’s conviction led to meetings of protest being organised by Chartists and Confederates in London and elsewhere., which led to police intimidation and the prescription of mass meetings of the two groups.

The Land Plan

The Chartists regarded the points of the Charter as a means to the establishment of a workers’ state rather than as an end in itself. Although there was agreement on this first step few Chartists were able to visualise the form future society would take. Scientific socialism was still only in its infancy. It is not surprising that O’Connor, who never understood the vast potentialities for the working people of a properly controlled industrial system, believed future society would be based primarily on the land. He therefore came to direct the attention of the democratic movement increasingly on the building of agricultural co-operatives, which owed a great deal to the teachings of the great pioneer, Robert Owen.

His scheme, known as the Land Plan, was to buy up agricultural estates with contributions from members of the Chartist Land Co-operative, which was formed with a capital of £5000, divided into shares of £2.10 shillings each. In 1845 two colonies were formed, one near Rickmansworth called “O’Connorville” and the other, “Charterville”, at Minster Lovell. O’Connor’s land colonies differed from those of Robert Owen in that in the latter the whole community cultivated the land in common and shared the produce, whereas under O’Connor’s scheme each settler had his own individual holding.

O’Connor’s land scheme found a ready response amongst workers who were themselves but a short time removed from the land and, compared with the appalling conditions in factories and mines, life on the land appeared to them much healthier and happier. Many of the Rochdale Pioneers, who were the founders of the British co-operative movement, took an active interest in the Land Plan.

History subsequently showed these land colonies to be a diversion from the main aim of securing the transfer of political power to the working class. Without such a social revolution, such co-operatives could not survive; in themselves they contributed little to bring about a change in the order of society.

Last years

In the years following 1848 O’Connor’s failing healt prevented him from playing a leading role in the movement as he had hitherto. His tremendous exertions on behalf of the Chartist movement had worn down his powerful constitution. As Ernest Jones wrote: 

“From the beginning of his career he has had to struggle against unremitting animosity from within and without the democratic movement. The petty intrigues of little ambitions and would-be democrats ..  have wasted and worn down those energies which might have been directed with successful force against the great oppressors of the people …. The concentrated mass of persecution was too much for him, and he sank beneath it.”

As a result of this strain it was widely believed that O’Connor’s mind had given way. In June 1852 the House of Commons, which was always personally bitterly hostile to him, adopted the unusual procedure of appointing a Select Committee which publicly pronounced him to be insane. He was confined in a private nursing home in Chiswick, where he remained until shortly before his death, when his sister, Harriet, who had made serious allegations against those responsible for his medical treatment, succeeded in removing him to her house in Notting Hill, where he died on August 30th, 1855.


Many of the things for which Feargus O’ Connor fought have now been achieved. The points of the People’s Charter have nearly all been realised. But Ireland is still not wholly free. The British Tory party and capitalist class draws strength from the Partition of Ireland and continued British occupation of the six Northern Irish Counties. In the Parliament of 1950-51, for example, the Tory members of Parliament returned from the gerrymandered constituencies of Northern Ireland were sufficient to ensure that Britain had a Tory and not a Labour government. Irish emigration to Britain continues as a result of the British stranglehold on Irish economic life.

In these circumstances, O’Connor’s teachings are of vital importance today. Sectarianism is still a weapon which is used to divide British and Irish workers in Britain. In their own interests, so that all workers in Britain may present a united front to the employers, British workers must take a stand for the unity and independence of Ireland.

Irish politicians who refuse an alliance with British workers and fail to build the unity of all Irish elements in Britain can only weaken the movement for complete national independence. Flirtation with the class and leaders responsible for Ireland’s continued Partition can only end in disaster.

If the workers are to be united, they must be organised in trade unions. Although great progress has been made since O’Connor’s death, there still exists a need to organise those workers who are not yet members. It is particularly important that the Irish coming from the rural districts of their native country, where there are few trade unions, should play an active part in trade union activity.

Above all, O’Connor taught that it was only by the unity of the working class of the two countries that the Irish would be able to win full national independence and the British be able to secure the transfer of political power to the workers.

For these reasons we honour Feargus O’Connor today. The principles for which he fought are as living as when he strove for them. But the opportunities of realising them in practice are brighter than ever before.

–   –   –

1. Thomas Mooney, c.1798–1888, Irish nationalist historian and journalist, travelled between Europe and America, dividing his time between London, Dublin and California. He worked for the Irish World in San Francisco and often wrote under the name “Transatlantic”. He wrote a People’s History of Ireland (1873) and many other works that were critical of British imperial policy at the time.